Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Benign Spooky

Getting Religion - New York Times
The caricature of American evangelicals as incurious and indifferent to learning is false. Visit any Christian bookstore and you will see that they are gluttons for learning - of a certain kind. They belong to Bible-study groups; they buy works of scriptural interpretation; they sit through tedious courses on cassette, CD or DVD; they take notes during sermons and highlight passages in their Bibles. If anything, it is their thirst for knowledge that undoes them. Like so many Americans, they know little about history, science, secular literature or, unless they are immigrants, foreign cultures. Yet their thirst for answers to the most urgent moral and existential questions is overwhelming. So they grab for the only glass in the room: God's revealed Word

Here is an autobiographical account of a (former) teenage Evangelical, possibly a decade younger than me.

I got religion as a teenager, but not the evangelical variety--possibly because I was older, and because I was female. I was on a quest for the benign spooky--an amalgam of high art, mysticism and the frisson that comes from ghost stories. In Spenser's time it was called "faerie"; now, in a degraded, homogenized, commercialized form it's New Age.

I'm not exactly sure when it started with me. Possibly reading Franny and Zooey, getting A Treasury of Russian Spirituality and trying the Jesus Prayer. More likely singing the Schubert Mass in G at music camp. The clincher was certainly my high school senior field trip to New York City when I went to the Frick and saw a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti--the Woman Clothed in the Sun, crushing the Serpent under her heel. I was thrilled. When I went to college it was more of the same: The Faerie Queene, Quarles Emblem Books and the Metaphysical Poets, the Grail Quest, Northrop Frye and the Archetypes, T.S. Eliot, Traherne's Centuries of Meditations ("The corn was orient and immortal wheat...") and more music--the Bach b-minor Mass. It was Romance, high Romance and the quest for the Transcendent.

At the time, the Church was a fairly good repository of all that, all the mysticism, aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelite stuff. There wasn't, in any case, anything else. Now there are Psychic Faires, the Pyramid Collection and the Church doesn't do that anymore.

But where is it, the benign spooky--the thrill, the magical mystery tour, the icons and archetypes, the grand Romance? The Church has failed me--and anyone else with that taste, anyone on that quest.And what else is it for--really? A community service agency ? an instrument of social control? Worthless: we now have better. If the Church isn't in the business of providing the benign spooky--the art, the mysticismand the thrill, the buildings and lovely things of every sort, the connection with our history--it has nothing.

I can't fathom why anyone would be an Evangelical. Reading this article, I can't get what appeal any of this could have. I suppose it appeals because the good stuff simply isn't available any more.


Anonymous said...

Every now and then I dip into the Enlightenment Project because I very much enjoy (and very often agree with) Harriet's comments on the Church. The writer quoted here "gets it" completely -- what the Church does best (I'd go so far as to say the only thing it can do well in modern society) is the thing that the religious "liberals" who, alas, run, e.g., my own Episcopal Church have either given up or dragged down to pedestrian levels -- high romance, beauty, mysticism, the transcendent, call it what you will. When it comes to religion, and with apologies to Mr. Keats who probably meant something else, "beauty is truth, truth beauty." And of course the "evangelicals" didn't have it to start with. The writer is of course correct that since humans (or at least some humans) have a longing for those things, there are other places in the modern world to which they can look. It's a pity, though; catholic christendom and its child the Church of England had centuries of practice & did it pretty well; what's left is pretty ugly and pretty unappealing.

H. E. said...

spooky amongst "liberals." However they've flip-flopped on issues and priorities over the past decades the campaign against transcendence has ongoing.

If you have your ears on, Anonymous, I'd be curious about your take. Why the ongoing campaign?

Of course they've given dozens of reasons over the years why the aesthetic/spooky had to go: it was "escapist" and distracted people from working for social change; it was expensive and used time, money and energy that could have gone to social service projects; it was "individualistic" (the flight of the alone to the Alone) and undermined "community"; it was elitist and excluded the poor, minorities and "young people" for whom the high style was inaccessible; and, of course, it was self-indulgent.

There must be a grand, unified theory. My guess is that at the bottom it comes from the loss of caste clergy have had to deal with since the rise of a secular intelligencia and, more recently, an educated middle class. Liturgical revision was imposed on the laity by the clergy--in the case of the RC church wiping out lots of folk religion. Liturgy was reconceived as a teaching tool by which clergy manipulated the laity. Without political power and no longer the only educated people in their communities whose intellectual leadership was recognized, they latched onto the idea that they were called to "use psychology," manipulating through liturgy.

Very speculative--but other than that I'm baffled. Why would anyone eat broccoli when they could have ice cream?

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